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Book Review

Environmental activism

The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice, by Christopher H. Foreman, Jr. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998, 191 pp.

Martin W. Lewis

Christopher H. Foreman, Jr., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that the promises offered by the environmental justice movement are relatively modest, whereas its perils are potentially significant. Writing in a field noted for its polemics, Foreman offers a refreshingly measured and carefully argued work. He takes the claims of the movement seriously, and he treats its leaders with respect; this is not an antienvironmental manifesto informed by reactionary analysis.

Foreman is concerned with issues of equity, justice, and environmental quality, and he appreciates the role that grassroots activism and governmental regulation can play in enhancing human well-being, especially in poor communities. But in the end, Foreman's insistent prodding, weighing of evidence, and analysis of political and rhetorical strategies effectively deflate the claims of the environmental justice movement. Until the movement accepts that tradeoffs must be made and that hazards must be assessed scientifically, Foreman argues, it risks deflecting attention from the truly serious problems faced by poor communities by pursuing a quixotic moral crusade.

Origins of the movement

The environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s from a melding of environmental concerns with those of civil rights and economic democracy. Such a marriage had previously seemed unlikely, because environmentalism was often regarded with suspicion by civil rights activists, some of whom denounced it as little more than an elitist movement concerned primarily with preserving the amenities of prosperous suburbanites. However, well-publicized toxic waste crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted in a subtle but significant realignment of political forces.

Activists suddenly realized that poor communities suffer disproportionately from air and water pollution and especially from the ill effects of toxic waste dumps. To the most deeply committed civil rights campaigners, such unequal burdens amounted to nothing less than environmental racism. The environmental justice movement was thus born to redress these wrongs and to insist that all communities have an equal right to healthy surroundings. Appealing to fundamental notions of justice and equity, the ideals of the movement quickly spread to the environmental mainstream, progressive churches, and other liberal constituencies. With President Clinton's signing of Executive Order 12898 ("Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations") in 1994, the movement had come of age.

Questions of evidence

Foreman begins his interrogation of the environmental justice movement by challenging its evidentiary basis. The claim that minorities are disproportionately poisoned by environmental contaminants, he argues, does not withstand scrutiny. Exposure to toxins is both more generalized across the U.S. population and less damaging to human health than activists commonly claim.

The infamous "cancer alley" in southern Louisiana, where poor, mostly African American residents are said to be assaulted by the mutagenic effluent of dozens of petrochemical plants, is, according to Foreman, a figment of the environmental imagination; according to one study, most kinds of cancer are actually less prevalent in this area than would be expected. Investigations showing distinct cancer and other disease clusters in poor, heavily polluted neighborhoods have not adequately weighed behavioral factors (such as rates of smoking), he says, and have not paid enough attention to how the data are geographically aggregated. Foreman also questions the common charge that corporations and governmental agencies intentionally site dumps and other hazardous facilities in poor and minority neighborhoods because of pervasive environmental racism. He argues, to the contrary, that in many cases the environmental hazard in question existed before the poor community was established; in other instances, purely economic factors, such as land price and proximity to transportation routes, adequately explain siting decisions.

If the dangers of toxic waste contamination are relatively low, why are they so widely feared? Foreman's explanation of this conundrum is based on the concepts of misguided intuition and risk perception. People commonly ignore, or at least downplay, the familiar risks of everyday life, especially those (such as driving automobiles or smoking cigarettes) that are derived from conscious decisions and that give personal benefits. Intuition often incorrectly tells us, in contrast, that unfamiliar risks that yield no immediate benefits, such as those posed by pollutants, are more dangerous than they really are. The perception of danger can be heightened, moreover, if unfamiliar risks can be rhetorically linked, as in most instances of toxic waste contamination, to insidious external organizations that profit from the perils they impose on others.

Foreman does not, however, dismiss all environmental risks suffered by poor communities. He admits that lead contamination is a serious threat in many inner-city neighborhoods and that farm workers and many industrial laborers are subjected to unacceptably high levels of chemical contamination. A reasonable approach to such problems, Foreman contends, is to specifically target instances in which the danger is great and the possibility for remediation good. Public health measures, moreover, should target all real threats-those stemming from individual behavior, such as smoking, just as much as those rooted in corporate strategies. But Foreman contends that the environmental justice movement inhibits the creation of such a reasonable approach by downplaying personal responsibility and by resisting the notion that environmental threats should be prioritized by scientific analysis. Instead, he claims, activists insist that environmental priorities should be based on the perceptions of the members of the polluted communities, unreliable though they may be when judged by scientific criteria.

Another agenda?

One reason why the gap between the viewpoints of environmental justice advocates and those of conventional environmental scientists and managers is so large, Foreman contends, is that the former group is not ultimately motivated by environmental issues or even necessarily by health concerns. More important, for many activists, are the political and psychological benefits resulting from mass mobilization and community solidarity. Community solidarity, in turn, can be enhanced by counterposing the "local knowledge" of activists and community members, which is valued for its roots in lived experience, with the "expert knowledge" of outsiders, which is often supposedly used to justify exploitation. Many advocates of environmental justice thus accord privilege to local knowledge while regarding expert knowledge with profound suspicion. Certainly the movement strategically deploys scientific appraisals that warn of environmental danger, but many activists warn against relying on them too heavily for fear of falling into the "dueling experts" syndrome; if scientists testifying on behalf of the polluters dispute the scientific evidence indicating serious harm, who then is the public to believe? It is much better, some argue, to put faith in the testimonials of community members suffering from environmental injustice than it is to trust "objective"-and hence objectifying-scientific experts.

Dueling experts

The dueling experts syndrome is indeed a familiar and unsettling feature of contemporary environmental politics. It also has the potential to undercut many of Foreman's own claims. He argues, with much evidence, that environmental injustice does not significantly threaten the poor citizens of this country. Many studies have, however, reached different conclusions, and the cautious observer is forced to conclude that most environmental threats to human health have not yet been adequately assessed. That they are not so pronounced as to substantiate the charges of the most deeply committed environmental justice activists seems clear, but it is not obvious that they are as insignificant as Foreman suggests. In the end, however, the war of expert versus expert solidifies Foreman's ultimate position. Despite claims to the contrary, a scientifically informed approach to environmental hazards will gradually approach, although never definitively arrive at, a true account of the relative risks posed by various levels of exposure to different contaminants. If evidence mounts that environmental threats in poor communities are greater than Foreman presently supposes, then he would presumably change his policy recommendations to favor stricter controls. The same cannot necessarily be said for his opponents; if further evidence weakens the claims of environmental justice activists, they can easily find refuge in the denunciation of scientific rationality.

Linked concerns?

Despite the vast disparity between Foreman's position and that of the environmental justice movement, both share a common concern with poor and minority communities, and both are ultimately much less interested in nature than they are in human well-being. Neither position is thus environmentalist in the biocentric sense of evincing concern for all forms of life, human or not. Environmental justice activists do, however, contend that the classical green issues of pollution and toxic waste contamination are inextricably bound to the problems of poverty and discrimination.

Foreman, on the other hand, implicitly contends that the two are only tangentially connected. If Foreman's analysis is substantially correct, might one then expect the divide between environmentalists and civil rights advocates-a divide that the environmental justice movement was designed to span-to widen again? Perhaps. But just because the two concerns are not necessarily entangled does not means that they are not equally valid and equally deserving of consideration. And certainly in some areas, such as brownfield development (returning abandoned and marginally contaminated urban spaces to productive uses), traditional environmentalists and advocates for poor and minority communities can find grounds for common action. (Ever the skeptic, however, Foreman argues that the promises of brownfield development are not as great as most environmentalists and urban activists claim.)

The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice is a good example of "third-way" politics. Foreman is concerned with ameliorative results rather than with radical transformations, and he is ready to incorporate insights from the political right pertaining to individual responsibility and risk assessment while never losing sight of the traditional social goals of the left. This book will appeal to those who favor technically oriented approaches to policymaking, while likely irritating, if not infuriating-despite its measured tones and cool argumentation-those who believe that the severity of our social and ecological problems calls for wholesale social and economic conversion.


Martin W. Lewis is associate research professor of geography at Duke University. He is coeditor (with Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt) of The Flight from Science and Reason (New York Academy of Sciences, 1996).